Progressives have long discussed why so many Americans continually vote against their own interests. Americans have a long history of voting for politicians that enact legislation which makes the lives of the majority more difficult. For decades the conservatives have masterfully used social issues to garner support from voters who would normally not support conservative ideology. By using divisive social issues the Republicans have been able to convince a large number of voters to actually vote against their own economic interests. Conservatives have skillfully used the fear of losing gun rights, the fear of losing religious freedom and animosity towards other races to win campaigns. However, the changing demographics of the American electorate, coupled with changing attitudes on social matters, provide hope that political victories through the use of fear may soon be a thing of the past.
Perhaps no other politician was as successful as Ronald Reagan when it came to convincing people that his policies would work in their favor. Reagan was a master of manipulating the social issue above the economic issue. I do not think it would be a simplification to say that for the vast majority of Reagan voters nothing mattered more than social issues. Reagan was a master at stoking racial fears and assuring voters that their fears were not only justified, but that their fears were more important than any other matter. His speeches included racial code words and included references to ‘strong young bucks’ collecting unemployment and ‘welfare queens’ in Cadillacs collecting food stamps. The meaning was clear to everyone, it was all about race. He was able to attract so many Democratic voters to the Republican Party that to this day they are still called “Reagan Democrats”. Basically, a Reagan Democrat is a voter who would normally support the Democratic Party on economic issues; however, their ‘social’ views are more in line with those espoused by the Republicans and so they cast their votes with the Republicans. Ronald Reagan was able to successfully expand the Republican Southern Strategy beyond the confines of the Southern States.
Until 1948, the Southern portion of America reliably voted for the Democratic Party. In 1948, President Truman signed an executive order to desegregate the U.S. military. As a result, several Southern Democrats (led by Strom Thurmond) formed the States' Rights Democratic Party (the Dixiecrats). After the 1948 elections the Dixiecrats dissolved and in the following years most of the members joined the Republican Party. Ever since, with very few exceptions, the Southern States have voted for Republicans.
The changing racial makeup of America will either force the conservatives to cease using racial fear to win elections, or it will severely limit the influence of conservative ideas in American politics. In May of 2012, for the first time in American history, white births were a minority percentage (49.6%) of all U.S. births. In 1960, the American population was 85% white and nearly 100% of all eligible voters were white. In 1980 whites still represented 79% of the total population. In 2011, 41 years after Ronald Reagan used racial fear to win the presidency, the percentage of whites (non Hispanic) in America had fallen to approximately 63%. White voters still make up an overwhelming majority of eligible voters. In 2012 approximately 71% of all eligible voters were white. In 1980, black Americans represented approximately 11.5% of the total U.S. population, in 2010 (U.S. Census figures) that figure had only increased to 13%. The Hispanic population is the fastest growing demographic in America.
In 1980, when Reagan was first elected, Hispanics represented 6.45% of the total U.S. population; in 2010 it was 16.7%. As a result of the growing influence of the Hispanic vote, states that were once considered solidly Republican are now seen as Democratic states. Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada are now considered Democratic states. The voting trends in Florida, Virginia and North Carolina also indicate that those states can no longer be considered Republican strongholds. Texas and Arizona are still Republican states; however, demographic trends in both states do not favor the Republicans. To shift the balance of power within the Democratic Party, Progressives need to reach out to the Hispanic community on the issues of economic inequity. The Progressive community could learn a lesson from the Republican Party’s masterful use of social issues, and begin using the issues of economic opportunity and inequity to attract more voters to support progressive causes.
In the 1980s the AIDS epidemic was terrifying America. The disease was first reported in America in 1981. AIDS was particularly devastating for the U.S. gay community. At that time, the disease was viewed as a result of what was called ‘the homosexual lifestyle’. Evangelical Christians used the predominance of homosexual deaths from AIDS to turn the disease into an indictment of homosexuality. Jerry Falwell, who in 1979 founded the conservative Christian organization the Moral Majority, was a staunch supporter of Ronald Reagan. He was a frequent visitor to the White House and found in Ronald Reagan a President willing to listen to his social ideas. When Falwell proclaimed that, “AIDS is not just God's punishment for homosexuals; it is God's punishment for the society that tolerates homosexuals”, he was saying out loud what many Americans believed. It was not until 1987 that Ronald Reagan mentioned AIDS in public. Even then he continued to tie the disease to morality. Reagan’s attitude was not abnormal but fairly representative of the America of the 1980s. Indeed, in most states same sex sin was a criminal act that was in some states punishable with jail time.
The idea of same sex marriage was not seriously discussed in American politics until the 1990s. It was still framed as a moral debate and not as a basic civil rights debate. The conservatives were able to control the framing of this issue and successfully use it as very divisive wedge issue to win elections. In 2004, shortly after the death of his own openly gay father, Karl Rove helped to launch anti-gay marriage initiatives in several important swing states. These initiatives raised the enthusiasm of the conservative voter whose high turnout led to a second Bush Presidency as well as solid Republican majorities in the House and Senate.
On November 7, 2012, for the first time in American history, voters used the ballot box to approve same sex marriage initiatives. Maine, Maryland and Washington voted to allow same sex marriage. Six other states had previously used legislative means to pass either civil union or same sex marriage laws. When presented with same sex initiatives in the past, American voters had said no over and over again. Even in supposedly liberal California voters had rejected a 2008 same sex marriage proposal by a nearly 600 hundred thousand vote margin. The change in America’s attitude on same sex marriage is primarily a result of demographics. Younger voters simply do not see this issue in the same manner as older voters.
Based on the results of a 2012 Pew Poll, approximately 20% of all Americans do not have any specific religion. That does not mean that they are atheists, rather, they have no chosen denomination. The percentage of Americans who do not have a specific religion is highest with those under the age of 30. Nearly a third of all Americans under the age of 30 have no specific religion. The era when religious organizations such as the Moral Majority are able to significantly influence American politics is rapidly coming to a close.
While the Republican Party’s influence should wane as a result of the American electorate’s changing demographics, the Progressives should see their influence expand. Progressive ideas are universal ideas. The idea of economic equality is one shared by the workers of South Africa as well as the workers of America. Healthcare, education, equality are all ideas that resonate with people around the globe. I hope that Progressives are able to capitalize on Tuesday’s election victories to regain control of the Democratic Party. Progressive ideas are the best way to move this country forward and bring economic and personal equality to all.